When news came out from Mission Viejo (Calif.) High last week that the Diablos, currently ranked No. 8 in the Student Sports FAB 50 ratings, have scheduled the top dog in high school football, top-rated Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, for next year it continued the trend of more perennial powers looking outside their areas to play the best competition. But is this a good or bad thing? We talked to the powers involved to get their thoughts
So why is Bob Johnson, the Mission Viejo High head football coach, smiling?
His program, currently riding an Orange County-record win streak of 37 games, has lined up a death-row nonleague schedule for next year as the two-time defending CIF-Southern Section champs will face De La Salle, Long Beach Poly (which has put more players into the NFL than any other high school in America), and two other traditional county powers in Santa Ana Mater Dei and Los Alamitos.
What, pray tell, is Johnson thinking?
My philosophy that I took from the beginning, he explains, is that to build a program you cant do it on gimme wins. To do it right, you have to put your sights on beating the best. The way our coaches and players look at it, they (De La Salle) have to play us. Thats why kids around our school are smiling from ear to ear.
Unlike in basketball, where top national teams often run into each in holiday tournaments, football traditionally has been devoid of headline matchups between top ranked teams.
Certainly, elite teams from different parts of the country rarely took the same field. It was only two years ago, for example, that the No. 1 and 2 teams in the Student Sports FAB 50, De La Salle and Poly, faced each other for the first time.
Now, however, the best programs are looking for challenges to keep their teams motivated and nothing works better than preparing for a big game, even if it is still 11 months away.
Call us crazy, Johnson continues of the decision of the Diablos coaches to load up the schedule, but we want challenges all the time and preparing for big games will help us work harder in the off season.
For Terry Eidson, the A.D. at De La Salle and the Defensive Coordinator for the Spartans, hes happy just to find teams who will play the juggernaut, which has a national-record 147 game winning streak intact going back to 1992.
In 97, teams in our league didnt want to play us, he remembers. There arent a lot of local teams within a 10-20 minute radius that want to schedule us so today we like to play teams that want to play us. It gets them motivated and gets our kids motivated too.
Not that long ago, the NorCal school was received criticism saying the win streak was tainted because of the inferiority of competition De La Salle was facing.
Wins over top programs from Southern and Central California, such as Mater Dei (four victories for DLS), Long Beach Poly (two wins), Bakersfield, and Clovis West, in addition to an impressive win last year against another traditional national power, Honolulu St. Louis, quelled almost all of that talk.
The willingness to take on practically any comer, as long as it made sense, legitimized DLSs program. However, Eidson is forthright in what he sees as doable and dangerous when setting up big-game matchups.
We wont make a schedule where kids miss a lot of class time, he explains. Theyre student-athletes, not athlete-students.
Also, it has to make financial success; the trip last year (to play St. Louis) was totally paid for by the state of Hawaii. Were not going to spend $40,000 to play a football game.
Just as in the college game, where universities walk a fine line in scheduling too soft a schedule versus facing too many good teams, Eidson explains there are guidelines he follows in setting up future games.
We try to make it one free date per year where well travel far away for a game. Ones enough, we dont want to turn this into a traveling circus.
We also play on Saturdays when its easier to travel and the kids dont miss any school. Driving distance is a factor for us as everything is two to three hours away. Next year, for example, well head south to play at Mission Viejo and also have three hour bus rides to Clovis West and Salinas Palma.
The Spartans coach says other advantages include getting battle-tested for state playoffs and giving the players experiences theyll remember long after the last whistle is blown.
The trip to Hawaii, he explains, was great and a lot of fun, but I knew it would give us a problem: that game was on a Saturday and the following game at St. Francis was on a Friday. We lost a day of preparation and knew that game wed have the most trouble of the year. Sure enough, we didnt play as well and won 14-0.
Another danger in playing too many big games is the threat of injuries.
Its not something we talk about a lot, admits Johnson, but it is a little in the back of my mind. We hope that through weight-training and conditioning it wont be a problem.
However, it was a problem this season for one of the countrys most heralded programs.
Youd be hard-pressed to find a high school that had a tougher schedule this year than Shreveport (La.) Evangel Christian Academy. The Eagles, which have won eight state titles on the gridiron, are currently 6-3 after facing teams from five different states in their first five games.
Evangels three losses came against teamsLongview, Texas; Hoover, Ala.; and De La Sallewhich have been in the FAB 50 this year. The Eagles did beat Live Oak (Fla.) Suwannee and another FAB 50 team, Rockhurst, Mo., but head coach Dennis Dunn says it came at a cost.
Its tough to stay healthy when you play so many great teams, he laments. Weve lost our entire secondary and two starting defensive linemen. I dont know if Id stack all those tough games in one year, let alone put them in a row.
Fatigue, he continues, played a big factor. We traveled 13 hours by bus to Florida and nine hours to Birmingham (Ala.) and then flew two time zones to California.
Eidson can relate: I saw Evangels schedule and Ive done something like it. I knew they were playing too many good teams back-to-back.
Still, Dunn saw some positives.
In terms of program development, it shows where you are. De La Salle is good, but weve played some teams as good or better and weve beat some and lost to some. Certainly, in preparing for the state playoffs we wont see anybody in this state (Louisiana) as good as the teams weve played this year.
Plus, the athletes will have memories theyll take with them for a lifetime.
Seemingly, more and more football players will have these opportunities. There are a growing number of regional events, such as the Ryle Classic in Kentucky where teams from Indianapolis (Warren Central), Louisville (Trinity) and Cincinnati (Elder, Princeton, St. Xavier), face each other.
Another significant one-site event is in San Antoniothe Texas Football Classicwhich is a five-game, three-day affair where last year 10 teams whove combined for 19 state titles battled each other.
National rankings expert Doug Huff, who compiles the FAB 50 for Student Sports, has closely watched as programs such as Mission Viejo, De La Salle and Evangel Christian have increasingly scheduled each other. He thinks its good for high school football to a point.
In basketball, its gotten out of hand, but Im for big games in football as long as its reasonable and the exception rather than the rule. Remember: these are high school teams, not college programs, and theyre not used to the travel. Also, in basketball teams generally travel over the holidays so not as much school is missed.
Huff continues: A matchup like Mission Viejo versus De La Salle is a natural, SoCal vs. Norcal, and I dont think that should be out of the ordinary as good teams generally want to see how they compare to other strong schools.
Johnson isnt worried about the injuries, the costs or even the schools winning streak coming to an end.
Cmon, if that was the case, we wouldnt have plugged in (Long Beach) Poly into an open date, which happened to be the win that tied the county win streak record. Its all about the kids preferring to lay it out on the line. Its good for the school, the county and the state and high school football in general.
Lets strap the pads and get it on, he concludes. I cant wait.